Takata Airbag Recall: Should I disconnect my airbags?

Out of the blue, your car is caught up in the Takata airbag recall. The dealer tells you replacement stock is weeks to months away. Your first instinct might be to disconnect the airbags. Is this a smart move, or deadset dumb?

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VIDEO TRANSCRIPT

The Takata airbag recall is the biggest recall in automotive history. Estimates vary, but more than 50 million vehicles are now embroiled. $1 billion in fines and penalties. Three senior executives charged. The multinational airbag manufacturer with nine factories across four continents went bankrupt in June this year.

More details on Takata >>

Thirty-something brands from McLaren to Toyota - most of the big names - are bound up in this scandal globally. They must be so pleased...

Here is the complete list of affected cars in Australia >>

Dodgy assembly methods mean, over time, some Takata airbags can bind up with the inflator unit and potentially spray deadly shrapnel into yo’ grille in a crash. But there’s no doubt the vast majority of recalled airbags are not in fact defective. Like most recalls, this one is overwhelmingly a precautionary move. Still, at least 16 people are dead as a result.

Common Questions & Comments

I’ve had a billion e-mails on this. Many people who reach out - it’s a nose-jerk reaction - demand the disconnection of their airbags to keep themselves or their families safe. The latest one is from Huy.

 
"My 2007 BMW X5 was just caught up in the Takata scandal. I called my nearest dealer only to be advised that there no airbags in stock. I will need to wait approximately 5 weeks. I am extremely concerned that I am transporting my family around in a ticking time bomb and I asked if they could disable the airbags as a temporary fix.
"They refused and so did BMW Australia. I am getting the runaround. Is there anything I can do to keep my family safe while we wait for the airbags to be fixed? Besides not driving the car at all, what should I do?" - Huy
 

Ian is a former Mazda owner with similar concerns.

 
"We bought a Mazda6 in 2004. A fantastic vehicle, reliable and low maintenance. In 2014, Mazda sent the airbag recall letter. I rang and asked when will the replacement be available. They said they would let me know. They never followed up. I rang them once every 6 months.
"I told the dealer I wanted the airbag disabled. They said we can’t do that. This was a car now being used by my teenage children. We banned them from highway driving to decrease the risk factors. Total care factor of sub-zero by Mazda. I will never buy a new Mazda again." - Ian
 

Let me say that this is a scary situation for any normal person who cares about their own safety, or that of their family. Nobody likes the thought of an ersatz Claymore mine pointed at their faces as they drive.

And it’s a philosophical betrayal - the airbag is supposed to keep you safe, and now it’s a prop in a bad Michael Bay movie. Not good.

 US Air Force Lieutenant Stephanie Erdman was injured in the right eye by shrapnel from a defective Takata airbag

US Air Force Lieutenant Stephanie Erdman was injured in the right eye by shrapnel from a defective Takata airbag

The Problem

The background briefing: The Takata airbag recall is huge. There are more than 50 million airbags that need replacing globally, and there simply is no warehouse anywhere with 50 million spares awaiting deployment.

There is a tendency in our society for numbers to just roll off the tongue without much processing. It’s hard to conceptualise 50 million of anything. If you live to be 70 years old, you will have lived for about 25,000 days. That’s about 600,000 hours. That’s about 36 million minutes.

Just think about every minute of your grandmother’s life. It’s roughly two-thirds of the way to 50 million. To experience 50 million minutes, you need to live to be 100 years old. So, if you make one replacement airbag a minute - it’ll only take about 100 years to manufacture the required replacements. That’s what I mean when I say this recall is ‘huge’.

Euphemistically, it’s going to take some time.

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Defect Rate & Death Risk

The reality is that the failure rate of those recalled airbags (the rate of actually defective airbags as a proportion of those that have been recalled) is about 1 per cent. Takata tested 20,000 recalled airbags. About 200 were defective.

So, to be injured by a defective Takata airbag, you have to be in a serious, life-threatening but survivable crash where the airbag deploys, and you have to be that one in 100 statistic. If the crash is so severe you would die anyway, a defective airbag really does not matter because the impact energy of the crash will kill you, not the airbag.

If the crash is minor, of course, the airbags do not deploy. Airbags don’t deploy for trivial crashes - it’s always risky to deploy an airbag. Things are already looking very bleak for you if the airbags deploy. The grim reaper is warming up to trot you off to the afterlife. Sometimes the airbag nudges him out of the way.

It’s understandable for you to be totally frustrated by any delay on this replacement, though - after all, it’s your head on the metaphorical chopping block, whatever the statistics. And you don’t have to care about the big picture.

You simply do not want to be in that ‘Goldilocks’ crash event, right? That serious crash. That one in 100 airbag. Game over… That’s bad.

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Disconnecting the Airbags

In the face of consumer impotence and looking down the barrel of some replacement airbag delay, you might indignantly demand the dealership disconnect your airbags. To keep you safe in the interim. I get it. But let’s think about that like the world is a actually rational place.

I’d suggest that disconnecting the airbags is completely nutty, however understandable the underlying sentiment. If you disconnect the airbags and then go out and have that Goldilocks crash that will kill you, but from which the airbag might save you, with the airbags disconnected the risk of dying is 100 per cent. (In that perfectly wrong crash.)

If you leave the airbags connected, the risk of being injured by a defective Takata airbag, in the same crash, is just one per cent. I know this is an unpalatable, imperfect situation, but the danger to you and your family is grossly elevated with the potentially defective airbags disconnected. On one hand: 100 per cent risk of death (disconnected) versus just one per cent (imperfect status quo).

Compared to other risks you face routinely in life, the Takata airbag risk is trivial. We do get bombarded with horror advertising about driving, but the reality is that although there is no benign transport system, driving has become absurdly safe.

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Driving and Risk

Australian passenger vehicles drove 176 billion kilometres last year. That’s about 12 return trips to Pluto - although why you’d go more than once is completely beyond me. (It’s not even a friggin’ planet any more.) In that insane amount of driving, just 813 people died.

That’s a lot of people, but not in the context of the staggering volume of driving we do. (When I say ‘people’ - that 813 people is just drivers and passengers. I took out everyone on two wheels and the pedestrians. Just to focus on the people sitting near airbags when they departed.)

That’s one death every 220 million kilometres. One death every 15,000 years of normal driving. Statistics are imperfect on airbags but the best estimate I could get is roughly 10 airbag deployments per death.

So there’s one airbag deployment event for every 1500 years of normal driving, ballpark. And not all of them are Takata airbags. And the death statistics include drunk dickheads, intentional risk takers, truck drivers high on amphetamines, people fleeing the cops and others just generally driving like complete tools - sending text messages or driving through red lights - whatever.

Not everyone who dies on the road is an irresponsible dick - but they are over-represented. If you took irresponsible dicks off the road, the stats would look even better. In any case, the risk of dying in a car if you drive responsibly is like the risk of winning lotto - only in a bad way. It’s extremely remote.

 
To put this in perspective - urban air pollution prematurely kills about 3000 Australians every year. So does suicide.
Drug overdoses kill 1800 Australians.
Statistically, per head of population, you are two to four times more likely to die from suicide or pollution, and roughly twice as likely to be killed by overdosing on a dangerous drug. Compared with driving.
 

Being involved in the Takata airbag recall increases the profoundly low risk of dying on the road by a factor of one in 100. Personally, I wouldn’t be losing any sleep over it.

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Community Apathy on Recalls

But I would be getting it done, and plenty of people are not, apparently. Some carmakers’ clean-up rates are still as low as 20 per cent - either because owners can’t be bothered or can’t be locatedd. There’s no legislation that compels owners to get recalls done.

Carmaker’s hands are completely tied on this. They seem to be fitting the replacements as soon as they become available, and they’re taking many steps to locate owners, which is difficult because many of the affected vehicles have changed hands several times.

Early on, many customer care call centres could have certainly been better communicators, but this ‘never buy Brand X again’ business, which I hear a lot, is a case of holding the wrong party accountable, in my view.

Carmakers should integrate and share ownership data with the registration authorities. There should probably also be legislation that compels owners to get recalls done.

There is no evidence that the ACCC found anything amiss about the behaviour of carmakers surrounding this recall. I know this was investigated. No carmakers appear to be dropping the ball here. Even the ones that are typically very Hannibal Lecter at customer service (I’m looking at you - Ford, Jeep and Volkswagen…) Amazing. Perhaps there is hope...

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Conclusion

It seems to me that the real failure here is one of education - a much better public information campaign would have prevented a great deal of emotional angst and uncertainty, not to mention negative sentiment from affected people. This ‘disconnect my airbags now’ sentiment really needs to be addressed officially.

My aim here is not to confront you nor disagree strenuously with you if your vehicle is affected and you are waiting interminably for a replacement - that’s gotta be stressful, and Takata are certainly gaping arseholes for getting this so stupendously, brain-bendingly wrong.

I simply hope to detain you some facts and perspective concerning the absolute risk this situation poses to you, between now and when the dealer can clean up Takata’s mess.

To find out if your car is affected by this recall (or any other) visit productsafety.gov.au >>  That’s the ACCC’s recalls portal here in ‘Straya. Or grab the rego papers and front up to any authorised dealer’s service department - they can use the VIN code and the hi-tech miracle of the internets to check on that for you.

Getting a recall done does not cost you a cent, and in extremis, it might even save your neck. There are tens of thousands of cars driving around today on Australian roads with outstanding safety recalls, and yours does not have to be one of them. I’m John Cadogan. I hope this helps. Thanks for watching.

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